As NFL training camps commence, optimism reigns around the New England Patriots and the league in general. With the harsh reality of losses and injuries yet to take hold, this time of year is about speculating on potential and dreaming about what could go right rather than what may go wrong.
For the Patriots, second-year players Jamie Collins and Aaron Dobson are the hot names that many have pinpointed as breakout candidates. Both have received national attention, and even I myself picked them as my top two Patriots likeliest to break out in 2014.
But while Collins and Dobson both possess star potential, expecting immediate stardom is perhaps asking a bit much. The likeliest scenario (and one the Pats would be happy with) would entail both developing into consistent, above-average contributors before becoming true Pro Bowl talents by 2015 or 2016.
That doesn't sound particularly sexy to fans, but there is one player who could make the leap from above average to stardom this season. Defensive end Chandler Jones may have accrued 11.5 sacks in just his second season, but as we'll see shortly, Jones is not yet the elite pass-rusher that some have proclaimed.
However, Jones does have the potential to turn into one of the NFL's best all-around defensive ends, perhaps as soon as this season. Diving deeper into last year's film and stats, let's take a look at where Jones still needs to improve as well as how high his ceiling truly stretches.
Not an Elite Pass-Rusher (Yet)
Though the double-digit sack total jumps off the stat sheet, anyone who regularly watched the Patriots last season understands that the defense's pass rush was generally hit-or-miss.
While New England finished 10th in sack percentage, per TeamRankings.com, the bottom line did not reflect instances where the rush was dominant (Week 8 vs. Miami, Week 16 vs. Baltimore) and games where it was nonexistent (AFC Championship, Week 1 vs. Buffalo). Jones embodied that roller-coaster trend, something astute observers recognized:
How do the Pats generate more pass rush next year? Like, but not sold on Chandler Jones.— Mike Salk, 710 ESPN (@TheMikeSalk) January 19, 2014
However, we do not need to rely on anecdotal evidence to see that Jones has barely scratched the surface of his potential as an edge-rusher. Before last season, NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal ranked Jones as one of the game's 25 best pass-rushers, lumping him in the same tier as eight other players.
Let's compare the 2013 seasons of those nine players who were seen as comparable players. We'll look at pass-rushing productivity, a per-snap efficiency metric from Pro Football Focus, as well as each player's rank relative to their position (4-3 defensive end, 4-3 outside linebacker or 3-4 outside linebacker). All stats below are courtesy PFF (subscription required):
|Player||Pass-Rushing Productivity (Rank)|
|Chandler Jones (NE)||8.7 (21)|
|Bruce Irvin (SEA)||12.6 (19)|
|LaMarr Woodley (PIT)||14.8 (4)|
|Charles Johnson (CAR)||11.6 (5)|
|Greg Hardy (CAR)||12.1 (4)|
|Justin Houston (KC)||14.1 (4)|
|Robert Mathis (IND)||11.2 (9)|
|Carlos Dunlap (CIN)||9.5 (16)|
|Tamba Hali (KC)||12.2 (5)|
via Pro Football Focus
Jones finished with easily the lowest pass-rushing productivity of the group, as he was one of only two players to pressure the quarterback on less than 10 percent of his pass-rushing snaps, along with Dunlap. Even if you want to throw out the outside linebackers, Jones lags behind the three other 4-3 defensive ends (Dunlap, Johnson and Hardy).
The film suggests that the reasons for Jones' inconsistencies were twofold. The first entailed his enormous workload, a factor out of his control. Jones played 97.9 percent of the defensive snaps, most not only on the Patriots, but among all defensive linemen in the league, per Football Outsiders.
Fatigue may be understandable, but it does not change the fact that Jones' typically explosive get-off often waned by game's end. Here's an example from the second Denver game in which Jones was the last man off the line of scrimmage:
Consequently, Denver left tackle Orlando Franklin was able to win the leverage battle and stick his hand in Jones' chest, halting the defensive end's forward momentum. Jones had to move laterally, where he became a virtual non-factor as Peyton Manning stepped into the pocket under no duress:
Late reactions to the snap do not just harm his individual stats. On this play, Jones was supposed to chip Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron. However, the tight end released quicker than Jones could react, resulting in a whiff on the chip. Not only did Jones take himself out of the play, but Cameron's clean release led to a 13-yard reception:
Again, it's important to emphasize that this was not necessarily Jones' fault, but rather a byproduct of his circumstances. With veteran free-agent acquisition Will Smith and first-rounder Dominique Easley in tow, the Patriots should be able to employ a more liberal defensive end rotation in 2014. Perhaps Jones' fatigue-related lapses will decrease as well.
Still, there is another factor that is well within Jones' control. Entering his third year, it is time for Jones to diversify his arsenal of pass-rushing moves. Too often, he was stymied when his initial move (usually a swim or bull rush) fails. Though this pass against the Miami Dolphins took eons to develop, Jones could not engineer any secondary moves after several failed attempts:
Jones also relies on hesitation and stutter steps a bit more frequently than he should. Though that can sometimes work to his advantage considering his quickness, it also results in wasted motions against fundamentally sound tackles like Cleveland's Joe Thomas:
Jones clearly has more in his toolkit (as we'll see below). Every pass-rusher does have a go-to move that he uses the majority of the time, but like good starting pitchers in baseball, elite pass-rushers have second and third options that keep the opposition guessing.
Fortunately, those who criticize Jones for disappearing because of his erratic pressure are wrong. That's because Jones makes a reliable and underrated impact in another less-heralded aspect of his job description.
Underrated Against the Run
By no means is Jones a two-gapping, Wilforkian run-stuffer. However, while his pass rush has yet to approach its ceiling, opposing coaches last season took notice of his vast improvements against the run, per ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss:
"He can rush the passer, we all know that, but the thing that has impressed me is that he is playing the run extremely well," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak, whose team is preparing to face the Patriots on Sunday.
That might be the compliment that Jones appreciates most after saying in the offseason that one of his goals was to improve his strength, particularly in his upper body. He's now a stronger player, which has been evidenced by the way he has effectively disengaged at times after his first move was thwarted, or simply with how he sets a better edge in the running game.
The numbers support Kubiak's assertion. Evaluating Jones' run defense on both a cumulative and per-snap basis, it's undeniable that he made tremendous strides from 2012 to 2013:
|Total Run Defense Snaps||261||453|
|PFF Run Grade||-0.6||+2.0|
|Total Run Stops||13||35|
|Run Stop Percentage (Rank)||5.0 (27)||7.7 (11)|
via Pro Football Focus
Run stops refer to tackles that prevent an offensive success, as outlined here. Not only did Jones vault into the top third of 4-3 defensive ends, but he also cut down on his mistakes, missing the same number of tackles despite playing nearly 200 more run snaps.
Indeed, solely judging Jones' performance by sacks or quarterback pressures represents an incomplete assessment. The prototypical "7-technique" is generally known for its ability to rush the quarterback, but the ability to use "force technique" to set the edge and funnel runners back into the teeth of the defense is just as critical.
Here's a textbook example of that. Jones initially lost ground to the tight end blocking him but re-anchored his lower body (a critical skill for run defense) and eventually spun off the blocker to finish the play himself:
The quickness that Jones so often relies on in the passing game also comes into play here. Though the 5-technique position (head up over the tackle) does not maximize his strengths, he blew up this inside zone run by deftly sidestepping an attempted cut block:
In New England's hybrid defense, Jones will line up in three to four different spots per game. That includes outside linebacker when the Patriots shift to 3-4 personnel, a trend that could be more prevalent in 2014.
Fortunately, he has proved adept at that position as well, affording Bill Belichick even more schematic versatility. Belichick knows how to maximize his players, so rather than asking Jones to drop into coverage or contain interior gaps, he has allowed him to remain an attacking one-gapper who knifes through space to disrupt plays:
Jones has progressed as well as one could hope against the run. Now, the question is if he can make that same leap in the passing game.
Glimpses of Superstardom
Despite the criticism of Jones' pass-rushing above, he has still progressed rapidly enough to imbue Pats fans with dreams of a perennial Pro Bowler. In truth, Jones was a raw product coming out of Syracuse, so his development into a three-down lineman is undeniably encouraging. If he sustains his current rate of improvement, some like the aforementioned Reiss believe that a true breakout could arrive in 2014:
We think he's ready to take another step, to the point that he could be mentioned among the league’s elite edge rushers. Why the conviction? Part of it is that with better coverage in the secondary, quarterbacks could be forced to hold on to the ball longer, creating more chances for Jones. There’s also the belief that perhaps less is more -- Jones might not be called on to play 98 percent of the defensive snaps like he was last year, keeping him fresher for the got-to-have-it pass-rush situations.
Jones has shown glimpses of a more diversified pass-rushing arsenal. Though someone with his quickness and arm length will always use the swim as his primary move, putting multiple moves together is the next step. Here, Jones picked up a sack after a speed-to-power move (otherwise known as a "hump move") to collapse the pocket:
Here's another changeup Jones may consider utilizing on a more regular basis. Instead of taking his typical outside route to the quarterback, Jones used his hands to conduct an "inside grab" move that flummoxed D'Brickashaw Ferguson:
Again, these moves are merely about fine-tuning Jones' pass-rushing ability. When differentiating among the league's elite, however, those tiny margins make all the difference. Jones does not need to combine moves or change his timing on every snap. But by honing his changeups, Jones can make himself less predictable and consequently set up his best moves.
The Patriots could also help by utilizing Jones in a more creative fashion. In limited snaps as an interior rusher last year, Jones terrorized lead-footed guards. Because interior linemen are usually not as quick to slide step as tackles, the outside shoulder that Jones loves to attack often comes open, as it did here against Vladimir Ducasse:
Here's where New England's offseason additions could aid Jones on another level. Besides providing rest, Smith and Easley afford the Patriots the option of kicking Jones inside more frequently on passing downs.
This is only spitballing, but a front four of Smith/Collins-Easley-Jones-Ninkovich could place all of the Patriots' most athletic pass-rushers on the field at the same time. Every team has sought to copy the New York Giants' famed "NASCAR" defensive line packages as sub-package personnel becomes increasingly prevalent. If healthy, New England has the tools to forge a reasonable facsimile.
Having more talented defensive personnel also opens up more play-calling options. Though the Patriots have recently relied on vanilla schemes to protect their young defenders, the extra time afforded by better coverage could allow for more creative stunts (which we see below) or zone blitzes:
Regardless, Jones figures to benefit from playing with the most talented Patriots defense in years. Belichick should be at his creative best, and it would not be surprising to see Jones benefit from a few easy scheme-related sacks.
If Jones never improves his pass rush, the Patriots will still have an above-average three-down lineman capable of filling numerous roles. That's a nice baseline, but it would be a disappointment if Jones never ascended beyond that.
Which Patriot will have the biggest breakout campaign in 2014?
In some ways, the first section's criticism would have seemed silly two years ago. Jones was supposed to represent a high-risk/high-reward project whose payoff would arrive years down the road. Instead, he's emerged as one of the few reliable cogs along the defensive line in recent seasons.
That Jones was still able to rack up 11.5 sacks despite having an underdeveloped pass-rushing toolkit should only excite Patriots fans. If Jones has yet to approach his ceiling, what will the bottom line look like if and when he does harness his rare athleticism?
For now, Jones looks like one of Belichick's biggest draft hits in recent years. Expecting breakouts from young players often yields disappointment, but it would be an upset if Jones did not fulfill expectations and emerge as a foundational bedrock for the defense.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).